Canadian virus: Mass confusion

You gotta admit, this has been a strange week for the media.

It began with Alaskan governor Sarah Palin's resignation, which fueled an epidemic of stories and columns. Speculation about Palin hadn't even reached a crescendo before it was overtaken by the genuine grief and public antics around the service held for Michael Jackson.

And yesterday, a picture flying around the Internet appeared to show Mssrs. Obama and Sarkozy admiring a young G-8 summit participant's rear end. Check this video, by the way, and I think you'll agree that Sarkozy seems more suspect than Obama -- but I digress.

Ah, but this isn't the only episode in which a video may, or may not, provide a clue as to what really happened. Given the torrent of attention paid to these events, you might have missed the flap over what Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper did, or didn't do, with a communion wafer at a funeral service for a colleague.

To my mind, there are two stories here. One is the blatantly silly one: the possibility that a politician known to be a devout churchgoer (albeit Protestant) would put a Communion wafer in his pocket! As a souvenir? Do you agree with Harper's assessment that it was a "low moment in journalism?"

It probably didn't help that a local Catholic official asked whether Harper consumed the host -- or that Senate Speaker Noel Kinsella, a Catholic, was quoted saying in an Agence France-Presse story on how appreciative he was that Harper consumed the wafer as a gesture of "solidarity and communion with all those present in the sanctuary." Kinsella's command of Catholic policy on intercommunion might be a little shaky.

It's fascinating how, abetted by Canadian satirists, the alleged "blasphemy" went viral. Given that our business here is looking at how the press covers religion, it's also interesting to see how what seems to be a clear policy about who and who isn't welcome to receive communion can become the subject of speculation and misinformation.

A story from last week by Charles Lewis of the National Post leads with the breach of protocol, rather than what Catholics might see as the more serious problem.

The conduct of Stephen Harper at a funeral mass has ignited a religious controversy over the intricacies of proper decorum during a Catholic Communion service -- a "scandal" that features Zapruder-like video footage, personal testimonials of witnesses and even an official statement from the Prime Minister's Office.

The controversy revolves around whether Mr. Harper, a Protestant, ate the Communion wafer or pocketed it while attending the funeral of former governor-general Romeo Le-Blanc at a Catholic church in Memramcook, N. B., last week.

Of course, the problem wasn't solely, or even mainly, one of decorum. It would be, as I understand Catholic doctrine, one of vastly different understandings of what the eucharist means. In addition, Lewis notes that "most Protestants see Communion as a symbol of the Last Supper."

I think you'd get a rather heated debate on that point from many of the world's 70 million plus Anglicans, or from various branches of the Lutheran tradition -- while they don't subscribe to a doctrine of substance and accidents, they do believe that Christ is really present in the Eucharist. How it happens, and what happens, is the subject of much debate. The further you get from the liturgical churches, the more correct his statement becomes.

I had thought that most journalists and, er, Prime Ministers, know that non-Catholics aren't supposed to receive communion in a Catholic church . Some journalists do -- or get half the story right. For example -- look at this editorial by Barbara Yaffe of the Vancouver Sun.

As with other journalists, Yaffe seems to miss why this might be a bigger deal. The wafer, according to Catholic doctrine, doesn't only "symbolize" the body of Christ. Through transubstantiation, it becomes the body of Christ. (I also wondered why Yaffe had to rely on a statement from U.S. bishops to back up her correct statement about who may receive and who isn't supposed to receive -- haven't the Canadian bishops said anything?). Again, an earlier story from the Telegraph-Journal didn't explain why putting a consecrated wafer in one's pocket might be a "scandal" in the eyes of the church.

All of this being said, I recall the first time my daughter attended communion at her parochial school -- and went right to the altar with her classmates. Did her teachers send her to the priest for a little remedial instruction on the differences between Catholics and Protestants? After we brought it to their attention, they told us that they were sure it wasn't the first time. Charity prevailed. At this point, I'm guessing everyone involved would like "Wafergate" to go away -- and that next time the Prime Minister will make sure to keep his hands crossed on his chest, and ask for a prayer .

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